Democracy Arsenal

September 14, 2006


The Folly/Wisdom of Exporting Democracy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

An article of mine on the "wisdom of exporting democracy" is out today on TomPaine.Com. For an alternative view, check out Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman's "The Folly of Exporting Democracy." I guess it's sort of a showdown between a "democracy-centric foreign policy" and "ethical realism." In any case, here's the beginning of my piece:

Some commentators —including most recently the American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias —have argued that the central problem in the Middle East is not so much its lack of democracy but, rather, “the enduring legacy of imperialism.” According to this line of reasoning, the solution to our Mideast dilemmas would be to change the policies that Middle Easterners hate the most. Unfortunately, the list of grievances is so long, that to actually redress them would, one suspects, take a very, very long time. Moreover, in a region where our vital interests are engaged, it is unlikely that an avowedly “anti-imperialist” foreign policy—whatever that might mean in practice—will stand a chance of being supported by either political party. More fundamentally, however, this diagnosis fails to grasp the real source of our difficulties in the Middle East.

It’s not so much that people are angry at us, but rather that people have no political outlet with which to express their anger in a peaceful, legitimate manner.

Even if the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict was to be solved through hands-on American diplomacy, it would be shortsighted to think that this would be the victory that some imagine it will be. For if the conflict is resolved, it does not change the fact that millions of Arabs live in humiliation, treated as little more than petty subjects, to be manipulated, controlled and repressed at will. The greatest indignities Arabs and Muslims face—the ones that, for them, are most immediate and tangible—come from their own authoritarian governments. And of course, we, in our continued support for unrepentant autocrats, are complicit.

As long as Muslims have grievances against us (and they most certainly will for the foreseeable future), then the only sustainable American response is to promote those democratic mechanisms that will absorb, temper and channel such sentiments in a constructive fashion. Only when their governments are responsive to their needs and frustrations will Muslims be able to shake off the humiliation and powerlessness which has been the prime mover of terror and extremism.

Read the whole thing here.

August 31, 2006

Democracy, Progressive Strategy

Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As mentioned yesterday, The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman, in a response to my American Prospect article, questioned the wisdom of a “democracy-centric foreign policy” and, moreover, wondered aloud whether I had a democracy “fetish."

Unfortunately, Ackerman is unable to grasp the fundamental nature of the "democratic dilemma" which has afflicted us for so long in the Middle East. For starters, he profoundly misunderstands the nature of political Islam. He claims that the US "is insane to promote democratic elections in which the victors proclaim eschatological hostility to it.” But not all Islamists proclaim “eschatological hostility” to America and to think so is to fall under the illusion that Islamists are uniformly crazy, irrational fanatics. This is simply not true. If we put aside the exceptional cases of Hamas and Hezbollah, mainstream Islamist groups - while they may in some instances be reactionary and/or exclusivist - are not, as Ackerman assumes, “radical." Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, most Islamist groups – such as Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s PJD, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, and the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood – are not armed or have military wings. Not only that, they have explicitly renounced violence and committed themselves to playing by the rules of the democratic game.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front is the largest opposition party in parliament and has generally had a working, if somewhat tense, relationship with the Hashemite monarchy. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has 88 seats in parliament and provides social services to millions of people. With that said, I’m not going to pretend that these Islamists (many of whom I have interviewed at length) are paragons of liberalism; they most certainly are not. Their views on women's rights, status of minorities, and implementing Islamic law leave much to be desired. They have, however, evolved in recent years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. For better or worse, they are well-rooted in society and represent a broad sector of the Arab electorate. Ackerman, it appears, would like to wish these groups away. In doing so, he is guilty of the same thing he accuses me of: mistaking “the world that American liberals would like to live in for the actual one that American liberals must confront.” These groups exist and, if democracy ever comes to pass in troubled Arab lands, then Islamists coming to power will be part of the package, whether Ackerman and I like it or not (as has already has happened in Turkey and Iraq, both of them allies).

It seems Ackerman only wants democracy if it produces nice, docile pro-American Arab liberals. Well, I’ve made the point over and over – pro-American Arab liberals are pretty much a figment of our imagination. For all intents and purposes, they don’t really exist (although I suppose this depends on how you define "pro-American"). As a liberal and a believer in liberalism, I wish it were otherwise but there are facts on the ground and we have to, at some point, face the Middle East as it is, not as what we would like it to be. The democrat's greatest test, after all, is supporting the democratic rights of those he disagrees with.

Building on his unsound foundation, Ackerman is essentially telling us that we shouldn’t promote democracy because Arabs hate us. He seems to forget that one of the reasons they hate us is because, well, we don’t promote democracy. Instead, we’ve been propping up the same ruthless dictators who have been oppressing and torturing their own people for decades. As long as we remain complicit in propping up these despicable regimes that betray everything our country has ever hoped to stand for, Arabs will never begin to trust us, believe us, or "like us." Their rage will continue to fester with no outlet for expression. And I think we know what can happen if the rage of millions of young men has no political outlet. For all their faults, at least the neo-cons were able to recognize as much.

Continue reading "Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")" »

July 07, 2006


Mexico -- A Silver Lining
Posted by Michael Signer

The coverage of the upcoming electoral stalemate in Mexico's Presidential election has an ominous tinge.  The New York Times tells us:

In the meantime, the way the candidates manage themselves and their supporters will determine whether or not this stalemate weakens or strengthens Mexico's young democracy.

After a tumultuous night in which both candidates claimed victory and held rowdy celebrations, conflicting feelings of concern rippled across a nation that is averse to political violence and that has lived through decades of electoral fraud.

Without being an expert on Mexico, I still think it's worth noting the silver lining here.  Mexico faces a test of the essential premise of the rule of law -- judicial review of political contests -- should prevail, no matter how much anxiety is provokes internally about possibilities.   And if the last two days of head-clutching are any indication, it's looking good that Mexico will take the democratic path this time around.

If Mexico -- a country that was run, dictatorially, by a single party for decades -- passes the test, it will demonstrate its ascension into the community of modern democracies.

Continue reading "Mexico -- A Silver Lining" »

June 27, 2006

Democracy, Middle East

In the Face of Repression
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The regime of Egyptian President-for-Eternity is in full repression mode, arresting pretty much anyone it doesn’t like. Yesterday, Ibrahim Eissa, the liberal editor-in-chief of al-Dustour, was handed a one year prison sentence for his criticism of President Mubarak. Today, the ruling National Democratic Party shoved through parliament the horrendous Judicial Authority Law. The Egyptian government is still apparently grappling with the idea of “due process,” and it appears they remain steadfast in their belief that human rights standards are not “appropriate” for Egypt, due perhaps to its “cultural specificity.” More than 700 members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested for belonging to a “secret,” “illegal” organization, which is rather absurd when you think about it, since the Brotherhood is the largest opposition group in parliament, holding 20% of the seats.

In times like these, one hopes and prays (since this is the kind of thing that may require intervention of a divine nature), that after God knows how many years of mutual acrimony, Egypt's notoriously fractious opposition will get its act together, put its squabbles behind it, and unite behind an inclusive pro-democracy platform. This means that leftists, liberals, secularists, and Islamists need to work together because they share one thing in common – a hatred of Arab autocracy and a desire for a democratic Egypt.

It is worth recalling that successful democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe were facilitated by broad-based opposition coalitions which were able to unite behind inclusive platforms. A culture of compromise prevailed as key players were able to reach a basic consensus on key issues. In the Arab world, however, the opposition has been paralyzed by ideological cleavages – until now (or so we hope at least).

To be sure, the ideological cleavages still exist but, in the shade of regime brutality, there are signs that liberals, leftists, and Islamists are beginning to grasp the need to get over the past and work together, today, against a common adversary. Which is why I found the blogger-activist Alaa Abdel Fatah’s recent declaration of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood quite interesting.

Continue reading "In the Face of Repression" »


Good News from the Arab World
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Finaly, good news from a region that loves bad news. If you doubt the transformative power of democracy, I suggest you read this article on the increasingly important role of women in Kuwaiti politics. In May 2005, parliament, after a long, arduous battle, granted women the right to vote. Today, 13 months later, hardline Islamists - who for years had fought tooth and nail against women's suffrage - are aggressively reaching out to women and courting their votes. When women represent more than 50% of the electorate, then even hardline conservatives will have no choice but to bow to electoral imperatives. Kuwaiti Islamists, like everyone else, want to win elections - and they can't win without the support of women. Even in the most traditional, tribal societies, democracy's power cannot be denied. One reason, among many, why Americans must not lose faith in promoting democracy abroad. Choice quote:

Hundreds of voters gathered Saturday night in a cavernous wedding hall in a conservative suburb of Kuwait City to hear Walid al-Tabtabaei, an incumbent Islamist candidate, give one of his last speeches before the parliamentary elections on Thursday. The voters compared notes on candidates and debated their merits. One thing set them apart from the voters who attended political rallies in past elections here, though: almost all were women. "The M.P.'s used to vote against us; now they are wooing us to vote for them," said Lulua Abdullah al-Omari, a mother of four, who sat in the front row and was eager to talk politics. "Women suddenly have more value in this society."

June 05, 2006

Democracy, Middle East

When Democracy and Liberalism Collide
Posted by Shadi Hamid

We are liberals. As such, one presumes that we believe in not just democracy, but democracy of a distinctly liberal nature. Democracy, without liberalism, can lead to “mass praetorianism,” rule by decree, and a kind cynically constructed populism. One presumes that these are not good things and, for those Americans that were not sure, the last five years offer a rather fascinating window into democracy’s fragility once its liberal safeguards begin to erode, first slowly then with greater intensity. The fact that America has resisted the careful onslaught of the republican-dominated legislative, executive, and judicial branches is a testament to the strength of our founding institutions, their durability, and their unmistakable ability to adapt, however haltingly, to the most urgent of challenges.

Our preference for liberal democracy, however, is not one without inconsistency. It is often assumed that promoting democracy abroad is in keeping with our founding ideals. It of course is, but it is less tidy than it might otherwise appear. In the context of the Middle East, more democracy leads to less liberalism. In societies where the electorate is illiberal, their illiberalism will be reflected in the kind of leaders they elect. Not only that, these leaders will invariably be more “populist” and anti-American than the “pro-US” dictators which preceded them. This makes sense – democracy is supposed to reflect the will of the majority.

The rising levels of anti-Americanism, thus, complicate our efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. The more anti-Americanism there is, the more promoting democracy abroad will bring to power people who don’t like us too much (i.e. Islamists). Arab democracy in 2006 will look different than it would have in the less contentious times of, say, Bill Clinton (whom Arabs have always had a soft spot for).

Continue reading "When Democracy and Liberalism Collide" »

May 30, 2006


Democracy Promotion
Posted by Morton H. Halperin

This week, over at the Council on Foreign Relations' website, I am debating the merits of "Democracy Promotion as Policy" with Paul Saunders.  You can read our discussion here.

Also, I will be returning from my blogging hiatus shortly, so stay tuned.

May 23, 2006

Democracy, Middle East

2010: A Taxi-Cab Odyssey
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Cairo, Egypt. May 2010. The following conversation takes place in a beaten up cab from the 1950s that does not (and cannot) have any seatbelts. Unable to stand the enveloping silence, I make some small talk with the driver:

Shadi: It’s kind of hot today.
Taxi Driver: Yep.
Shadi: Well, what about the political “weather” then (this makes sense in Arabic)? To be honest, I’m pretty disappointed. Always bad news. Gamal [Mubarak] is turning out worse than his father. I didn’t think it was possible.
Taxi Driver: Tell me about it.
Shadi: Well, thank God the US is serious about democracy promotion. The White House will give Gamal a panic attack with its grandiose Wilsonian lectures on political reform.
TD: Who is Wilson?
Shadi: He was an American president 90 years ago. He believed in self-determination for third world peoples, and presumably for Arabs as well.
TD: We want this man Wilson.
Shadi: So do I but, alas, he is dead.
TD: May God be praised. To God we must all return. Still we don’t believe Clinton’s wife is serious in her democracy talk. She talks like Bush. Nice words but empty words. In the Arab world, as you know, we don’t believe what politicians say.
Shadi: Well, I guess that’s one thing we have in common. But what about the US postponing a Free Trade agreement for another five years because of the lack of progress on democratic reform?
TD: Details. Deep down, you don’t want democracy. Ya captain (i.e. Mister) - we remember what happened in Algeria.
Shadi: But that was 20 years ago.
TD: …we also remember what happened in Palestine, when you asked for elections and then you changed your mind after.
Shadi: Ummm...
TD: Plus, you Americans pretended like you didn’t want Gamal to succeed his father. But you could have stopped him if you wanted.


Shadi: Things seemed a lot better when Bill Clinton was president, didn’t they?
TD: May God grant Bill Clinton continued success and prosperity.

May 16, 2006

Democracy, Proliferation

How to Join the Friendly Dictator Club and Live to Tell About It
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It appears that the serial offensiveness of the US decision to restore diplomatic ties with Libya has been lost on most observers. It marks yet another instance of the Bush administration’s implacable disregard for Arab democracy. If anything, this was exactly the time to say to Libya that, yes, we are happy that you have renounced nuclear ambition but we will not be fully satisfied until you renounce your autocracy. Libya, unlike many of the other egregious human rights offenders in the region, is actually what may be termed a “full autocracy,” meaning that there isn’t even the charade of electoral window-dressing. There is, however, the well-scripted, although somewhat tiresome charade of Muammar Qaddafi’s “third way,” forever enshrined in the laughable “Green Book,” proof that sometimes the first and second ways are the better bet. In any case, there is a well-deserved, although now crumbling, consensus that Qaddafi is (was) a most despicable man, and one, to boot, with a fashion style bordering on the horrific.

Then there was the overwrought self-aggrandizement that seems to have become a mainstay of the State Department press operation. Condoleezza Rice declared that “just as 2003 marked a turning point for the Libyan people, so too could 2006 mark turning points for the peoples of Iran and North Korea.” She went on to call Libya “an important model.” Well, in 2006 the Libyan people are still living under the same unrepentant tyranny as they were in 2002, a tyranny which allows them no recourse to liberty and freedom - things which, lest we forget, President Bush seemed to believe in quite strongly as recently as January 20, 2005.

Yes, if you’re disciple of Scrowcroft (and it just so happens that Rice is), then yesterday’s announcement was indeed one to get triumphant about. Realism is alive and well. I, on the other hand, am perhaps being unrealistic to expect that any US administration – Republican or Democrat – will be able to resist the lure of dictator-coddling, a favorite pastime in Washington circles. Interests, interests, interests. Well, if this is the case, then the war on terror will not be won easily for an American victory requires nothing less than the dismantling of the authoritarian status quo, a status quo which has made the region a hotbed of all the things we don’t like – extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism, cultural, economic, and political stagnation... The list, as always, goes on.

May 08, 2006

Democracy, Middle East

Torture and Silence: This Year's Arab Spring?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

You perhaps doubted claims of Arab autocracy’s renewed vigor? Well then, there is this from The Arabist:

“You bitches. You sons of bitches. This is how it is going to be from now on if you do not behave and know your limits. If you do not behave you’ll have the bottom of my old shoes all over you." These and more were the exact words of Sami Sedhom, Assistant to the Egyptian Minister of Interior, Habib el Adly.

There is torture, Abu-Ghraib style. There is also torture, Egyptian style. Anyone with politically active friends in Egypt has heard the horror stories. More:

Friends of two of the detainees received phone calls from their mobile phones describing how they were being tortured. “We are screwing them right now” were the exact words, raising fears that our colleagues may be subject to the well known brutality of Egyptian police.

Let me just note, once again, that Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is one of America’s closest allies in the region. More importantly, it receives more than 2 billion dollars of US economic and military aid (in other words, our tax dollars). I spoke over the weekend with a State Department official, who will remain unnamed, about the deteriorating situation in Egypt. He assured me that they have made clear to Cairo their concern over such human rights abuses. But he wondered aloud why some people exaggerate the US government’s ability to pressure other governments to do what we want them to do. So, let me get this straight - you can invade a country, occupy it for a couple years, and spend endless billions in the process, but you can’t get your good old boy Mubarak to respect even the most minimum and basic of human rights standards?

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